Scientists tweak turmeric extract to help human body absorb it; may help treat breast cancer
the Ayurveda system of medicine recommends use of turmeric, Curcuma longa, for a range of ailments including inflammation and pain. The age-old cure for common diseases has now been turned into a new age wonder drug that could cure cancer. It goes by the name curcumin. But uses of curcumin, the component that gives turmeric its curative property, are limited--it is not soluble in water, hence not well absorbed by the human body. For therapeutic use curcumin has to be administered in high doses.
Only 60 to 66 per cent curcumin gets absorbed. The rest either breaks down in the presence of enzymes in the liver and the intestines or gets rejected as waste. "Difficulty in delivering curcumin is limiting its use.If it can be delivered successfully by overcoming its absorption (bioavailability) problems, it can have a huge market," said D V Ratnam of University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK. Ratnam works on nano-drug delivery that holds promise for cancer patients. Curcumin encased in nanoparticles has been found highly effective in treating breast cancers. Researchers at the M D Anderson Cancer Center in the University of Texas, US, fabricated the nanoparticles using silk fibre rich in keratin (silk fibroin) and chitosan (a polysaccharide) polymers. The team found the breast cancer cells absorbed nanocurcumin very well. The results suggested nanocurcumin would be able to treat breast cancer but further studies are needed. The results were published in the May 2009 issue of the International Journal of Nanomedicine. Researchers are also experimenting with curcumin wrapped in tiny packages made of membranes, composed of fats and phosphates to deliver curcumin directly to the affected cells. Such techniques prevent curcumin from disintegrating and increase its availability in the body.
Heat has been found to increase turmeric absorption which gives credence to the popular belief that turmeric mixed in hot milk enhances its curative powers. Researchers at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation found twelve-fold increase in curcumin solubility when it was boiled with water for 10 minutes. The study was published in Assay Drug Development Technologies in August 2007. Whether curcumin made soluble with heat leads to its increased absorption is yet to be proved. "There is little data to prove heat-solubilized curcumin in aqueous solvent has any effect on bioavailability in humans," said Bharat B Aggarwal, professor of cancer medicine in the department of experimental therapeutics at the University of Texas.
Another way to increase curlicue solubility is to combine it with sugar. Pharmacists in Bengaluru studied the anti-inflammatory benefits of curcumin combined with sugar and found it more soluble in water. It significantly lowered colon inflammation in rats. The study was published in the June 2009 issue of the journal AAPS PharSciTech.
Curcumin is soluble in ethanol and oils. But it is not known how ethanol affects curcumin. Companies that market herbal products claim curcumin solubility can be increased using oils. A Kerala-based manufacturer and exporter of herbal extracts, Arjuna Naturals Extracts Limited, uses emulsifiers to make curcumin soluble. Merina Benny, assistant general manager in the company said the company's product Biocurcumax (curcumin with turmeric oil) proved to be 700 per cent more active during human clinical trials, making it suited for therapeutic use. The results were published in the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences in July-August 2008.
A component of pepper, piperine, prevents breakdown of curcumin and enhances its absorption, said K Srinivasan, senior scientist at Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore. A Bengaluru-based pharma company markets this combination as Bioperin. Researchers at the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Punjab, however, found that nanocurcumin increases bioavailability of curcumin nine times more than curcumin used with piperine. The study was published in the March issue of the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Other than the company's claims there is no evidence that these methods enhance bioavailability, said G Padmanabhan, honorary professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. His team has, however, used Biocurcumax in combination with the drug artemisinin to effectively treat malaria. While researchers are busy trying to make curcumin more water-soluble, its market demand is growing.
India exports 28 tonnes of turmeric annually which is 60 per cent of world exports.
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